Party Headquarters

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

When we first meet the unnamed hero of PARTY HEADQUARTERS, the new novel by the Bulgarian writer Georgi Tenev (translated deftly by Angela Rodel), he is visiting the red light district in Hamburg. Put off by the fake, commercialized sex on display here, he wanders around the area, thinking back on his youth in communist-era Bulgaria, when he was a Young Pioneer dreaming of becoming a cosmonaut. His hopes and dreams were crushed by the collapse of the Soviet system, as foretold by the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

“We did everything correctly, following the established plan approved by the management,” says the voice of authority in his head. “ He replies in his own disillusioned voice: “Just as under socialism–we do and did everything correctly, yet life, the world, continues to collapse beneath our feet like a reactor that has entered a runaway state of nuclear meltdown. Is there any need to explain what those two great liberating words mean: chain reaction?”

Chain reaction becomes the metaphor explored by Tenev in his dark, savage little novel. The corruption and criminality of Stalinism leads to the explosion in Chernobyl which in turn poisons life in Eastern Europe and brings down the Soviet empire. In its ruins, the ex-cosmonaut hopeful “turned rebel and street fighter” goes to Germany to visit his former Party boss in hospital. Known only as K-Shev, the hack politician is dying of leukemia caused by radioactive fallout. The hero of PARTY HEADQUARTERS, after donating blood to K-Shev, gets a present from him: a suitcase stuffed with Euros that the crafty old pol had salted away on the job.

There’s an additional complication involving K-Shev and his daughter, a “self-assured bad-ass” he meets outside a liquor store when she accidentally spits her wad of gum at him. Although she denies even having a father, the truth about her connection to K-Shev soon outs, thereby causing much friction and animosity between the two eventual lovers.

Don’t assume from this summary that PARTY HEADQUARTERS is a conventional, linear novel. On the contrary, it unfolds in a jagged and elliptical way, with its focus shifting between characters and places, different time periods as well. With its alternating interior and exterior voices, and its mordant humor, PARTY HEADQUARTERS is a striking example of 21st-century experimental European literature.

Formal questions aside, the book also manages to capture the pain and bitterness of the Bulgarian people, all of whose dreams and ideals have been betrayed and destroyed.